Everything I Never Told You-Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng’s debut novel and she sets the bar high. Her novel revolves around the a Chinese-American family living in small town Ohio, a rarity in the 1970s.

What works in this novel is Ng’s use of a third person narrator, and through this narrator, we learn how deeply dysfunctional and non-communicative the Lee family is. The novel begins: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six-thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this Innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast” (1). Lydia’s death reveals how isolated each family member is from all the others. Set apart from their community because of the bi-racial nature of the family, they are also set apart from each other. Lydia’s death isolates her family further from their community–her death is a suspected suicide–and, when most needed, each other as well.

Ng’s third person narrator slowly reveals the inner thoughts and disappointments each family member harbors. Through her death, this narrator also shows each family member struggling to cope with what the each wanted reality to be, and the truth. The old saying is the truth shall set you free. In this case, the truth severs the frayed threads tying this family together, sending each of them tumbling through their grief, unmoored from each other.

Lydia is sixteen and a perfect mix of her genetic heritage: “But Lydia, defying genetics, somehow has her mother’s blue eyes, and they know this is one more reason she is their mother’s favorite. And their father’s too” (3). The ‘they’ in this quote are Lydia’s siblings, her older brother Nate and younger sister Hannah. Within the first few pages, the narrator reveals several secrets. Nate and Hannah know black-haired, blue-eyed Lydia is the favorite child out of the three. The only hidden secret is the parents unaware their other two children have picked up on the favoritism.

Marilyn Lee sends Nate and Hannah off to school and takes a mug from the cupboard, a routine gesture in a morning suddenly thrown off the routine. As she does so, she flashes back to a memory of Lydia when Lydia was eleven months old. Marilyn left Lydia playing in the living room on a quilt, and had gone into the kitchen for a cup of tea:

             “Marilyn took the kettle off the stove and turned to find Lydia standing in the doorway. She had started and a red, spiral welt rose on her palm, and she touched it to her lips and looked at her daughter through watering eyes. Standing there, Lydia was strangely alert, as if she was taking in the kitchen for the first time. ..The thought that flashed through her mind wasn’t How did I miss it? but What else have you been hiding?…Marilyn often had her back turned, opening the refrigerator or turning over the laundry. Lydia could’ve been walking weeks ago, while she was bent over a pot, and she would not have known” (4).

Here we learn through the narrator Marilyn doesn’t know Lydia as well as a mother should, especially when it comes to walking. After a short time, Marilyn calls the police and James at work. Eventually, through the narrator, we learn this isn’t the first time the police have been called about a missing family member.

We also see James, grading history papers in his office. He’s a tenured faculty member, a professor of American history, at Middlewood College. When younger and:

“still junior faculty, he was often mistaken for a student himself. That hasn’t happened in years. He’ll be forty-six next spring…Sometimes, though, he’s still mistaken for other things. Once, a receptionist at the provost’s office thought he was a visiting diplomat from Japan and asked him about his flight from Tokyo. He enjoys the surprise on people’s faces when he tells them he’s a professor of American history,” but becomes defensive when people “blink.” (9).

He still feels the outsider, set off by his ethnic heritage, even though he’s as American as the people he is talking too.

Throughout the novel, Ng’s effective use of the third person narrator continues to reveal the secrets of the Lee family and how those secrets keep the family isolated from each other.

Toward the end of the novel, Ng also uses her narrator to flashback to Lydia, when she was alive, allowing the dead girl at the beginning of the novel a voice in her own story. It is an inner story that has shaped Lydia’s life, one she needs to revise, with devastating results.

The novel raises questions: how well do we know family members? Is what we “know” true, or assumptions, because it’s far easier to deal with assumptions–what we want to be true–than what really is? Everything I Never Told You is a novel that has stayed with me, long after I finished reading it.

Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. New York:Penguin Group. 2014. Print.

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Not Because They Are Easy, But Because They Are Hard

I was recently on a plane for the better part of a day, and, finding myself with a roomy three square feet of free space, I decided to return to Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It is a nonfiction work that “…attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years.” Diamond writing is clear and engaging, and I found the subject fascinating. However, it took me over a year to finish.

I initially read at a brisk pace, but I didn’t make it far into the book before I stopped reading. I was distracted by work, social obligations, all the usual stuff.  There were always errands to run or one more email to send. Dinner was on the stove, and I didn’t want to start reading only to stop twenty minutes later. A day without reading it turned to a week and into months.

I enjoyed Diamond’s exploration of the history of civilization. So why couldn’t I sit down and finish the book? It would be too easy to say that I was too busy, that every single thing I did was too important to be replaced with reading. That wouldn’t be true though. I could’ve gone to bed with Guns, Germs, and Steel instead of my smart phone, or I could’ve read it in lieu of browsing the internet. I could have made the time. But these other forms of entertainment were easier. Turning on the TV only takes one button and then the light and sound can wash over you. With smart phones and computers almost everywhere, you have nearly unlimited entertainment at your fingertips. I would be lying if I said after dinner I’ll crack open War and Peace, and I know I’m not the only one who will take the easy road. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But I know I’m depriving myself of great literature, stories, and ideas by avoiding the ‘harder’ works. There’s a feeling of fulfillment you get when completing a long, difficult story that doesn’t come with finishing the latest two hundred page pop fiction novel.

I’m not claiming that a longer story is inherently better. Some of the best works I’ve read were short. But in avoiding long fiction (and nonfiction, as in the case of Guns, Germs, and Steel) you do yourself a disservice. You would never read Infinite Jest or The Count of Monte Cristo (two of my favorites).

I plan to devote more time to tackling involved works of fiction and nonfiction. When the reading gets tough, when I have to look up yet another word, I’ll keep going. The remote may be nearby, but ten more pages first.

Revision? Try Renovation.

By Robin Black This post first appeared October 11, 2011   What can renovating and reclaiming your home after years of neglecting it teach you about revising fiction?  A lot more than I imagined, it turns out. My husband and I have lived in our house for sixteen …

via Revision? Try Renovation..

When is a Polka Like a Ship Deck? On Suzanne Cleary’s Poem “Polka”

by Gabrielle Freeman

I’ll admit it. I’m biased. I love Suzanne Cleary’s poetry. I first heard her read in my second semester in the Converse College Low-residency MFA back in June of 2011. Although it probably didn’t happen exactly this way, in my mind, Suzanne walked up to the miked podium at the front of the crowd in the high ceilinged, many windowed Zimmerli Common Room, smiled, and said, “Sausage Candle.” I just about fell out of my very uncomfortable folding chair. It was the first time I realized that poetry could be damn funny and damn good at the same time. So it was with great anticipation that I went a few weeks ago to hear Suzanne read from her new book Beauty Mark, the winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry published by BkMk Press.

While there is plenty of Suzanne’s distinctive, subtle brand of humor in this collection, it was the poem “Polka” that caught my ear that rainy January night. “Dancing the polka is like walking / on a ship’s deck / during a storm, water flying into the air, / sliding in sheets across the gray / wood” (43). Now, you don’t have to be a polka aficionado to get this. If you’ve heard even one polka played or seen one performed, you understand the image: “Each time the ship / tilts, you take two hop-like / steps in one direction” (43). The poem is accessible, a quality which I admire and for which Suzanne makes no apologies. But this poem also takes risks, something Suzanne encourages in her craft lectures and her critiques of her students’ work, and something that she practices in each and every poem.

The humorous image of people dancing as though trying to regain their balance on the deck of a listing ship becomes something more when “There is someone in your arms, and this is what / makes it a polka, although she or he / does not look into your eyes, and you / do not look either, at your partner,” (43). And more when “to dance the polka is definitely / to think of death, your partner’s shoulder / surprisingly small in your hand” (43). Then there really are two people, not simply dancing, but barely hanging on to some small human contact; two people with a tenuous hold on life but still moving, still keeping in step.

The risk is taken here in “hop-skips.” Once the reader accepts the idea of the polka as keeping balance on a deck at sea, the poem skips to the idea of one’s fleeting connection with other human beings, and the reader must balance. The next skip is to a part of US immigrant history, to learning the polka “from grandparents, whose grandparents / learned it from their grandparents, who left / Petrovavest for Bratislava, Bratislava / for Prague, for ships that took six days / and five nights to cross the ocean. / They never spoke of the crossing, / not even to each other” (43). The reader must again catch her balance.

There is another risk, another hop-skip and rebalance when Suzanne describes the polka this way: “You might as well call the dance / Walking the Ship Deck During a Storm / that Partly –Holy Mother, Forgive Me –/ I Did Not Want to Survive” and then “this dance / that could more succinctly be known as / Long Marriage” (44). This poem that starts off so simply, this poem that hop-skips across the page with its lines alternating between left-justified and tabbed over, maintains its own balance though the “deck” leans more and more until the final line which stops the poem, the reader, and the dance.

“God. You’re beautiful when your hair is wet” (44).

Cleary, Suzanne. Beauty Mark. Kansas-City, MO: BkMk Press, 2013.

“Is An MFA The New MBA”? New slant on that MFA degree

Over at fastcompany.com: “Is An MFA The New MBA?

Companies all across America are starting to see a critical talent gap as older employees retire. Arts students may not have all the traditional skills, but they have the most important one: creativity.”

Read the rest of Steven Tepper’s excellent post at fastcompany.com

Alexis Paige’s Seven Ways of Looking at a Resolution

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

I recently read this blog entry by Alexis Paige on Brevity and it got me thinking about my own writing resolutions. I have a memoir I need to finish, some habits I need to form, and some tools I need to sharpen in the toolbox, so I could relate to this writer’s musings about her writing life.  The only thing I must preface this repost with is a side note on her first resolution. She includes an excerpt from another writer who shares her thoughts on blogging that struck a teeny tiny nerve. When you read it, you’ll probably think that I took it too personal, and you’ll be right. Yet, I still want to state my opinion about blogging here, especially if you have ever been met with this conflict yourself.  In my opinion, blogging shouldn’t be about expanding a platform or be seen as creating distractions from more important things. It should be about thinking, writing, and sharing. And, if one writes for the sake of writing, whether anyone reads it or not, then the writer can never arrive at a conflict.   Yet, despite her blog entry leading in with a question on whether or not blogging is a worthwhile endeavor, Paige includes some thoughts that I felt would appeal to writers across genre lines. She is honest and funny, and makes herself vulnerable to the reader like many non-fiction writers do. This makes her reader take what she writes personal. You become invested. Ms. Paige also includes titles of some other great posts from the past year that were published on the site. So, all in all, it’s a good read, and I felt it was worth reposting.

Seven Ways of Looking at a Resolution”  by Alexis Paige

1) I will blog. Or, not.

On Being an Inept Blogger, by Marcia Aldrich, January 13th, 2014:

“I should be finding ways to focus my reading, not further my distractions. So too with my own writing. I have a file cabinet with drafts of essays I haven’t managed to complete, drafts of books I’ve abandoned in boxes that block movement in my study…

“So why take time away from my primary pursuits to write a blog? Wasn’t I going to contribute to the problem, writing more stuff no one has time to read? And yet blogging was one of the crucial elements I was advised to undertake in the service of promoting my book.”

In this post, excerpted on Brevity, and available in full on her Backhand Blog, Marcia Aldrich makes a wonderful case for ambivalence regarding the age-old question: to blog, or not to blog. Aldrich outlines varied bloggerly concerns—from time, topic, and focus; to her own resistance to writing about the act of writing about something (suicide) that was, in the first place, very difficult to write. She says, ultimately, “I’d rather have the book languish on the dustiest shelf in the world emporium of remaindered books if to sell it I had to perform his death over and over. I had done that in writing the book, and it was all I could do.”

This post made clear two things: blog or don’t freaking blog. I didn’t know I was looking for permission on this account until I read about Aldrich’s struggle. She freed me to embrace my digital media ineptitude, or contrariness, or fear, or whatever it is. And so, my friends, I resolve in 2015 to do one or the other, resolutely. Or, maybe I will go back and forth, continuing to agonize (the way I do over the last 10 pounds, as if they matter, if they are the last lbs. on Earth) about the dreaded “platform.” (See how I put it in quotes? That’s because I refuse to acknowledge the writer’s “platform” as “a thing.”) You know what now seems a more doable resolution, one far from the maddening meta-toils of the blogging question? Losing those last 10 pounds.

2) I will do my homework.

Seven Essays I Meet in My Literary Heaven, by Jennifer Niesslein, January 21st, 2014

Look, I love lists, stacks, bullet points, maps, and assignments. Tell me what to do, please. Writing prompts, however, I do not love. It’s okay if you do (I’m not here to hate), but prompts make me think of husky-voiced workshop house-mother types off-gassing incantatory affirmations and possibly Nag Champa incense. Don’t get me wrong, I like Nag Champa: many languid afternoons were spent lolling under its spell. The point is, by way of my own associative rabbit hole, I find writing prompts, well, kinda culty.

But Niesslein’s inspired list of seven essay types with accompanying contemporary examples, from The Essay that Manages to Be Funny, Poignant, and Thought-Provoking All at the Same Time; to The Essay that Illuminates Naked Yearning, provides perfect assignments for the essayist. Not too amorphous, not too prescriptive. So in 2015, I’m going to write one of these from Niesslein’s list. If you’re a resolutions overachiever, you should probably do all seven. Any fewer and no Auld Lang Syne for you next New Year’s.

3) Embrace Rejection!

The Form Rejection Letter Decoder Thingy, by Brevity’s Sarah Einstein, Feb 10th, 2014,

Sarah Einstein takes the sting out of rejection with her downloadable Cootie Catcher, which offers kind and generous reassurances to the delicate writer: “The piece was beautifully written and the editors feel sure some lucky journal will take it.” Or, “The editors admired the piece but it reminded them of another they published last issue.” See? It’s not you! Really. It’s them! Now go print one off, and put it on your desk next to the Magic Eight Ball. During writing breaks, you can consult the oracles.

4) Don’t reinvent the wheel/ Keep submitting!

Finding A Market For Your Flash Nonfiction, by Chelsea Biondolillo, March 11th, 2014.

I actually started this one in 2014. First, I ripped off her succinct cover letter and saved it in my submissions folder. (It’s an homage, okay?) Then, I took Biondolillo’s exhaustively-researched list and put it up on a bulletin board. I’ve submitted to a good number of these journals already and will round out the list in 2015. Why reinvent the wheel when the Internet (I mean, Chelsea) has already done the work for you? Bonus? You can cross-reference rejection letters with your decoder thingy from resolution #3. And then make ironic DIY wallpaper out of all of the above.

5) Let out the words trapped inside.

On Writing, Survival, and Empowerment, an interview with Brevity’s Kelly Sundberg, by Sarah Einstein, April 16th, 2014.

“I had compulsively searched the internet for stories about domestic violence, but much of it wasn’t recognizable to me. The authors weren’t grappling in the way that I was grappling.”

Perhaps all writers have stories they need to let out, in order to free not only themselves, but to free others from similar experiences, or to free others to make art out of travail. My own, which I have guarded tightly for 13 years, has only recently begun to rise to a place from which I might access and write it. It’s the story of, and here’s the problem, my rape? sexual assault? which occurred on a trip to Italy in the summer of 2001. See how language still eludes me? Grappling is the word Sundberg uses to describe the process of writing her domestic abuse story in such a way as to remain faithful to a certain ambiguity. I suspect that when the writer becomes a statistic, the language has to be dealt with as much as the event. Is rape what you want to call it? someone said to me in those early days. I didn’t want to call it anything, actually, and so for years I ate it and drank it and drugged it and stuffed it. But stories have their own buoyancy and schedule, and as I said, mine is surfacing. Now is the time for me to let out the words. Sundberg did it, and though she might disagree, she did it bravely. And I can do it, and so can you.

6) Lean on a To-do List

Lightning and the Lightning Bug: A Revision Checklist, by Susan Tiberghien, July 3rd, 2014.

Writing is often unsatisfying. You go away to your cave, for years at a time, and you emerge squinting and grizzled with (if you’re fortunate) some finished work, perhaps even (if you’re really lucky) a bound rectangular object made of paper and ink, filled with pages of said work. See, I made this! you can say. You can finally show the object to people; the work is real. But from most days at the writing factory you return empty-handed. No sales, no widgets. After many days like these, I need to sink into a concrete writing activity. I need some tactility, proof of my own writerly existence. A revision checklist, like Tiberghien’s here, can provide just the structure I need when writing begins to feel like a formless slog. So the next time I find myself on a dry-cereal-eating pajama-wearing-for-days bender, I vow to pull out this revision checklist and my red pen. And you should join me. (Pajamas optional.)

7) Give Yourself Permission

Give Yourself Permission, by Brevity’s Allison K. Williams, November 24th 2014

“You are what you present yourself as. You have a right to define yourself, and project that definition to others. Every time you say what you want to be is what you are, you help move yourself ahead and you let others help you move ahead. Like dressing for the job you want to be hired for.”

Fake it until you make it they say. They say a lot of things, some of them glib, some helpful. But, hey, I’m not above platitudinal assistance. Every year around this time, I get caught up in the clean-slate fervor of the season, searching for a new slogan to take with me into the next. I found 2015’s mantra in Williams’s heartening post, and thus, all year long I will be giving myself permission. To write. To fail. To succeed. To move myself ahead. This phrase, like bits of poetry or jingles or slogans before it, will be the layer of mental nacre I wear into the shiny new year. I’m giving myself permission, for example, to declare the following: I am finishing my first memoir and actively seeking an agent and publication. Just writing that down makes me feel a little taller. What will you do this year to move your writing ahead? What will you give yourself permission to claim in 2015?

__

Alexis Paige’s work has appeared in Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog, where she serves as Assistant Editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program. You can find her at alexispaigewrites.com.

 

Coming Fall of 2015-“This Angel On My Chest” A collection of short stories

Leslie Pietrzyk, fiction mentor in Converse College’s MFA program and friend to Why The Writing Works bloggers, made a big announcement at winter residency:

My manuscript of short stories won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize!  My book, THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, will be published in the fall of 2015 by the University of Pittsburgh Press!  Oh, yay!

Read the rest of her post here.

I still miss Leslie’s (and her co-leader Marlin Barton) workshops. 🙂 If you’re interested in learning from this fantastic writer, apply here.

Voice, Language, and Perfect Endings

From time to time, Why The Writing Works will repost some of our earlier blogs. This entry was posted in February, 2012.

in Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Rhonda Browning White

Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford’s personal emancipation from a voiceless black woman who didn’t count for much in the grand scheme of her horizon, the Deep South, into a woman who explored the future, discovering strength in herself in spite of other’s opinions.

Strong themes run throughout the story—feminism, racism and classism, for example—but the thing resonant to me throughout is voice, or language, and the way the two intertwine. Metaphorically, Janie has little or no voice in the story, but relies on others to do the talking for her. This is true even as she relates her life story to best friend Pheoby in flashback, prompting Pheoby to repeat her story to others: “You can tell ’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf” (6). This demonstrates Janie’s complete trust in Pheoby, but it also reveals Janie’s belief in the futility of talk, of voicing her opinion, bearing forth an argument, or trying to convince people to change their minds. “Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em nothin’, Pheoby. ‘Taint worth de trouble. . . . To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothing’ about” (6). Janie left home at sixteen with much to learn, and she returns having broadened her horizon (not only demographically, but emotionally, as well), and she is no longer as prejudiced as she was when she left.

Hurston’s liberal use of the Southern black vernacular spoken by her characters juxtaposed with the narrator’s rich, literary prose provides framework for the setting and underscores the sense of place in which the characters exist. This union of these two radically different styles of language adds depth and knowledge of the culture of 1930s Florida that environmental descriptions alone can’t provide. This change in voice mimics the distinctly different discernments of the scene as viewed through the eyes of Janie, who had never been there before and saw it as another “new horizon,” and Tea Cake, who knew from experience the hardscrabble life they’d live while inhabiting the Everglades. Hurston’s variation in these two interpretations of the place gives the scene a feeling of fact, depth and realism it wouldn’t have if both descriptions had been conveyed using the same regional dialect.

The story’s final paragraph returns to the narrator’s lyrical voice and ends with a reference to the horizon mentioned in the novel’s first paragraph and referred to throughout:

“The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came   and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the room; out of each and every chair and thing. . . . She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” (193).

An ending like this that references the beginning is a common trend in fiction, one that feels both necessary and natural. Had Hurston ended the story with Janie giving voice to her feelings, the story wouldn’t have had such power. Janie had finally learned what it meant to love, was at peace with the loss of that love, (because she felt honored to have experienced it for a time), and refused to share that glorious, private feeling of privilege with anyone else. She finally found her voice by defending herself and sharing her life story, but she determined to keep it to herself, to draw it close, cherish and protect it. This, in my opinion, is a perfect story ending.

Hurston, Zora Neal. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper, 1998. Print.